The Importance of Empty Space

I’m a theatre teacher, and the phrase “empty space” conjures images of Peter Brook’s famous book of the same title. But I’m not going to talk about that today. Rather, I’m going to talk about a metaphor I’ve been using lately to talk about curriculum and how we might think about curating it for our students as we plan lessons, units, courses, and programs.

Compare the two images below:

Oakland Museum of California

Becoming Van Gogh  Exhibit at the Denver Art Museum Oct. 21 2012-Jan 20, 2013

Becoming Van Gogh, Denver Art Museum

Now, I am not a visual artist or a curator, but I venture to say that the second image here engages the viewer in a very different way than the first. The first saturates us, and our eyes — while perhaps stimulated — don’t know where to go and so we cover a lot but we risk gaining very little depth. There is, in my thinking, no space around the images to guide our attention to what’s important, what’s representative. The second, on the other hand, uses the space around the paintings by Van Gogh to great advantage. It directs our attention to a thoughtful arrangement of representative work. It also, I think, leaves us wanting more.

As schools continue to wrestle with what and how to teach, I recommend that we consider the two images above and what this might suggest to us. Is it better to cram as much onto the wall as possible out of fear that we’ll miss something? Or is it better to let the space around carefully curated and representative pieces focus us on what can really move us, really transform us?

Before we react against the nothing that we think is not there, might we pause and consider the nothing that is?

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Why Formative Assessment?

Whenever I use the phrase, “formative assessment,” I brace for eye rolls. Some find it “jargon,” and even John Hattie, whose work and research I admire, quarrels with the phrase. But I’m going to continue to use it because the phrase helps us value process and the teacher-student communication necessary to reach our mission as educators.

But it does more than this, I think. First, however, let me tell you what I think formative assessment means. Formative assessment is the timely, rich, and deliberate feedback a teacher and/or peer group can offer to a learner on a regular basis. I also find that the practice of formative assessment is just as potent for a teacher, for when formative assessment — the daily practice of observation, critique, feedback, etc. — is part of school culture, everyone understands where she or he is in their thinking. When this understanding is in place, we can all make better decisions on what and how to teach.

We know from brain-science that learning builds on prior knowledge and understanding (cf. Susan Ambrose, et. al., How Learning Works, Jossey-Bass, 2010). In order to know what students know, we need to assess them so that we can meet their needs and create an environment for them to do their best, most rigorous work.

But let’s talk about rigor. What does this look like? I imagine that, to many of us, rigor calls to mind students poring over tomes, sitting for difficult exams, dedicating hours to homework. Some of these images are accurate, and I won’t take the time here to deconstruct some of the issues I find with that narrative. Rather, I want to think about what people might see as a lack of rigor: kids working in groups, engaged in collaborative projects, getting messy with ideas, question, sticky notes, and Sharpie pens. Too often, this picture seems like “fun.” Well, such a scenario is fun — and why should that be incompatible with rigor and deep learning?

It isn’t.

In his excellent book, Why Don’t Students Like School? (Jossey-Bass,2010), Daniel T. Willingham tells us that people don’t remember what they try to remember; they remember what they think about. We cannot underestimate the importance of this statement. If true — and I believe it is — then a classroom must be a place to exercise thinking and not just a place to remember fixed facts and ideas.

Classrooms, in other words, cannot only be spaces where a unit can carry on for three weeks only to culminate with a test. Students may do well enough on that test, but how do we really know what they understand? How do we really know our impact? Have they checked out for two-and-a-half weeks only to cram for the test? We need to have a regular mechanism that can give us as much feedback as we hope to give them. Sure, keep the test, but make sure student thinking is visible during that time. In other words, exercise formative assessment. How do we do this? Well, we can certainly draw on some time-tested measures. Quizzing can, in fact, be effective not only to check for compliance (boo! if that’s the only reason — hate that word) but also because the act of retrieval, as Peter C. Brown, et. al. discuss so masterfully in Make It Stick (Belknap, 2014), helps students store ideas in long-term memory.

Another way to help advance student learning at the same time that teachers get rich feedback for their teaching is to use the superb work that has been hatched at Harvard Project Zero — in particular, Making Thinking Visible (Ritchhart, et. al., Jossey-Bass, 2011). More than just activities or exercises, the thinking routines presented in this book are intended to become a habit, a regular way of working and thinking — the stuff of “disposition building.” This is an important tool for teaching and learning  because Visible Thinking practice can shift the narrative such that we can answer — or, at least, that I can answer — what, in fact, a classroom should be.

A final note. Teachers — good, well-intentioned, conscientious — spend an enormous amount of time putting red marks on quizzes, papers, and other assessments on a daily basis. I know that this feels right — that it looks like the kind of (rigorous) feedback necessary for students to improve. My question is whether this is the best mechanism to help students with achievement in their study. I worry it’s not. Would the finite resources of teacher time and energy be better spent on creating the most engaging, thinking-rich lessons that promote thinking that is visible? Yes. If students are thinking in class and teachers can see this, they’ll know where students need help, where they need to slow down, go faster, etc. Too much time and energy is spent on the red pen and not enough of formative assessment that would free teachers up from deadening grading. This would be a big departure for many of us in schools: teachers, parents, and students. But, I argue, this would be a new kind of comfort that could awaken new ways to think, to learn, and to extend that learning.

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NAIS Blog Post

I had the good fortune to publish a piece on faculty professional development with NAIS’s blog, Independent Ideas called, “School Change: One Faculty Member at a Time.” I hope you’ll check it out!

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A Psychologist Talks Curiosity

A colleague of mine sent me the following article by Susan Engel, professor of psychology at Williams College, “Joy: A Subject Schools Lack.” This is a particularly fitting article for those of us at McDonogh since “joy” is the central word in our school’s mission statement. As I started reading, I found myself nodding more and more vigorously. I think that, sometimes, when we talk of curiosity, joy, student-centered learning, and so on, we risk having these ideas questioned (this is not a new theme for me). But as I burrow ever further into research on the brain and education, I am convinced that we must make curiosity and joy real priorities in our work — these qualities pave the way to student motivation, thinking, and deep learning. I am convinced of this. I’m sure I’ll be writing more about this in the coming weeks and months, but I really just wanted to spread the name, Susan Engel. And now I leave you with a talk Engel gave a few years ago at Williams, The Hungry Mind: The Origins of Curiosity.

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Find Your Meaning, Part 2

No profit grows where is no pleasure ta’en.

In brief, sir, study what you most affect.

Taming of the Shrew, William Shakespeare


My parents, who were both first-generation Portuguese-Americans (Azorean-Americans, to be precise), didn’t graduate from high school. It just wasn’t in the cards for them. But, when they raised me, they always had their hearts set on my attending college. And college, like all education for them, meant opportunity and a better life. The American Dream. Possibility.

Indeed, education has meant all of this for me. No, I’m not rich, and, no, I didn’t attend a well-known college. All of my education was public, and I held part-time jobs the whole way. And this, though I didn’t know it at the time, freed me. With no expectation beyond my schooling other than learning, I was able to do anything, take any class, cook up big dreams. It was only in retrospect, when I encountered students in my high school teaching for whom this kind of latitude wasn’t always possible, that I realized how lucky I’d been.

I’m still lucky. For nearly twenty-five years, I’ve had the privilege of teaching, and whether this took place in college seminars, high school classrooms, or on the stage, I have always kept sight of what education has given to me: a sense of purpose and endless possibility.

At the moment, the education world is ablaze with titles about where education is failing, where it is working, and where it is going. While some authors call for sweeping reforms at the legislative level, others are content to share what they believe is the path to better teaching at the classroom level. I love settling into my chair at night with the most recent research on educational neuroscience or with the latest from Project Zero. But, for all the stimulation (and, often, genuinely good, useful ideas), education, for me, is about helping a student find his or her meaning, and many methods can lead to successful teaching. What passion gets a person up in the morning? What passion keeps a person up at night? This passion is the object, I believe, of learning, and it’s the noblest objective to which teachers can aspire in their practice with children. And when a child finds his or her meaning — or what could, one day, become that meaning — then anything is possible. Purpose and possibility.

I see the next phase of my career as an administrator-teacher helping to get everyone involved with schools — students, parents, teachers, administrators — to continually ask: What is education? Why do we teach? What is the purpose of school? These are the questions that, at first glance, seem easy to answer. I know they were for me.

These questions have gotten much more complicated for me over the years, however. Much more. And for that, I’m grateful.

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Find Your Meaning

I got invited to the White House yesterday. No kidding. I was sitting at dinner with some colleagues and students at McDonogh, and I got a message on my phone from President Obama’s Director of Presidential Correspondence asking if I’d be interested in attending the Criminal Justice Reform panel he and The Marshall Project were holding.

I said no.

That’s a lie, of course. I was ready to head down to DC last night, for crying out loud!

But why would a high school teacher get this phone call? Well, this past summer, I learned about the President’s wish to examine and reform the criminal justice system in the United States. He gave a speech at the NAACP, and I admired his wish to understand why, since 1980, the prison population in the U.S. has increased from under 500,000 inmates to roughly 2.2 million people in our day. And those who are incarcerated are disproportionately represented by black and Latino men. Add to this the fact that our current prison profile costs taxpayers around $80 billion, and you can see why this is a priority. For more on the history of corrections in the U.S. during this period, see Ta Nehisi Coates’s, “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” The Atlantic‘s featured article in its October issue.


President Obama on the right and me on the left.

President Obama’s call for reform also comes hard on the heels of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray. And, as he said today, while most law enforcement have the best of intentions in the midst of often very dangerous work, we cannot ignore that black men and boys seem singled out in exceptional ways, historically.

But why me? Well, in the past year, I have grown increasingly dissatisfied with my own ignorance about the problems with racism in this country and with the ways I benefit from structural bias day-to-day. If I’m a teacher with intentions of helping students prepare for life, I have a deep obligation to own my ignorance and to do something about it. Without question, the events in Ferguson, Staten Island, and Baltimore opened my eyes. I didn’t only want to learn; I wanted to do something, too. Freddie Gray, I thought, could easily have been any number of young men in my classroom.

And so I started to read, watch, and discuss. I filled in gaps in my understanding of Civil Rights. I read Coates’s, Between the World and Me. Our school read Beverly Daniel Tatum’s book, “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” I learned about Freedom Summer. I devoured Ralph Ellison’s, Invisible Man. You get the picture.

I was also working with McDonogh’s Director of Diversity to help pen the School’s Diversity Strategic Plan. I was immersed in the conversation about diversity and, in particular, about race and racism in the United States. I’m not too proud of the fact that, as a 46-year-old, I had so many gaps (and continue to have them), but I own that truth, and I want to do something about it.

And, so, when I heard the President’s platform, I did something I never thought I’d do: I wrote him a letter. To cut to the chase, I thanked him for his work on this issue and I offered to serve on an advisory board if education was to be part of this reform (which it is).

Time passed. School started. The leaves turned yellow and red.

And then the phone call came: “The President read your letter, marked it up, and passed it around to some of his team. He thought you might like to attend this panel.”

But why did I think I had (have) anything to offer? First, I have had the privilege to know people in the Shakespeare theatre world who have done remarkable work with prison populations. Curt Tofteland, whom I cited in my letter to Mr. Obama, founded the rightly famous, Shakespeare Behind Bars program. Now in its 21st year, SBB has had a significant impact on parts of the population that the rest of us would soon like to forget. And I get that. Many of the people who are in prison are, to be sure, guilty of their crimes — some actions that are too awful to name. But with the major majority of inmates scheduled for release, how prepared are they for re-entry? Will they be released ready for the challenges of life (especially when carrying the stigma of a felony), or will they be stripped of these life skills and, sooner than later, add to the recidivism numbers? SBB has proven that arts programs — indeed, all education — help to create a population of people more ready to be contributing citizens.  The work of Curt Tofteland and many others who have followed in his steps inspired me, and I knew that I could count on that Shakespeare community to contribute to any expansion of such programming.


President Barack Obama and LAPD Police Chief Charlie Beck

I also wrote because I have been a classroom teacher for nearly 25 years, and, in that time, I think I have come to know what is at the very core of every teacher’s job: to help students find their meaning. Yes, we prepare them for college and jobs, but, in the end, they’d get into college and find jobs without much help from us. The greatest joy and the greatest calling of being a teacher is to clear a path so that a student turns down that path toward the thing that becomes the first thing they think of in the morning and the last thing they see in their mind’s eye at night.

I’ve had the privilege to see students who thought little of the stage in the 9th grade enroll as conservatory students in acting after high school. And I know this happens in math, English, music, visual art, science, world language, and history all the time.

Sometimes, when I hear about gang members in Baltimore or about people leaving their countries to join ISIS, I think, “they’re looking for their meaning.” And, as tragic as it might be, they probably find it there on some level. And then I think, “If they only had a drama program or a lacrosse team or violin, what might be different?”

I’m not naive. I know having a role in Hamlet won’t transform everyone. No, not everyone. But some? Yes. Many? Yes. I say yes. And I believe that the many people in prisons and those most at risk for being sent to one are there — or will be — because, at some point, they were denied more positive ways to find their meaning.

And that’s why I wrote President Obama. And that’s why I teach and will continue to teach. And that’s why I think it’s important that I tell you about it.

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Make a Good Argument. Really.

In the last few days, several people have emailed me Molly Worthen’s op-ed piece in the New York Times, “Lecture Me. Really.” I read the article, and I have some thoughts. But let me say, before I go any further: lecture, when well-done, can be a truly amazing teaching tool. I wouldn’t lecture all the time, however, but I wouldn’t do any one thing all the time. People love and respond to variety, and my students are people, so . . . well, you get the syllogism.

I also believe that, in our time, when we are asking thoughtful questions about pedagogy, that it is a fool’s errand to get caught up in the false choice of “either lecture or active learning.”

Good. I needed to get that out of my system. Now onto Worthen’s article.

Here’s what I like. It is indeed a wonder to be in the presence of a great lecturer in the same way that we love to be in the presence of any great performing artist — and I’m not being ironic about this. This past summer, a colleague of mine from another independent school and I were talking about lecture, and we both agreed that when lecture secures the power of great storytelling (my bias) or of polemic (his), then it can indeed awaken students’ ability to engage in meaningful ways. I do also think that the practice of note-taking is critical, and this is a skill that students can and should practice.

But let’s look at Worthen’s language and assumptions, for this is what strikes me as most problematic. She writes,

In many quarters, the active learning craze is only the latest development in a long tradition of complaining about boring professors, flavored with a dash of that other great American pastime, populist resentment of experts.

Active learning, celebrated by the likes of John Dewey over a century ago (to name only one person), hardly makes what we’re doing these days a “craze,” if I understand “craze” as being on the same level as, say, “The Frug,” which, if memory serves, baffled Alan Sherman and drove him nuts. But I digress. But is this “craze,” as she calls it, necessarily a function of the alleged “boring professors” and “resentment of experts”? She suggests this. And yet, if one takes the time to read the research and thought on active pedagogies, active learning is about what’s best for students and not some implicit indictment of “boring teachers.” In other words, students, the literature suggests, still learn more when they are are constructing their learning even if they have a top-flight lecturer. We follow the research that says what’s best for student learning — not because we’re out to get anyone. What’s really going on here? Hmmmm

She continues:

Lectures are essential for teaching the humanities’ most basic skills: comprehension and reasoning, skills whose value extends beyond the classroom to the essential demands of working life and citizenship.

Comprehension and reasoning are indeed essential demands, I agree. But, while I concur that lecture can succeed at imparting the importance of these abilities — and maybe even imparting these skills — is lecture, as Worthen seems to suggest, the only or the best way? I’ve never seen a student learn the skill of playing a trumpet by hearing a lecture on how to do it or by even hearing the horn played. True, some instruction helps to set a student up for success, but he or she must ultimately make the sound.

She adds:

In the humanities, a good lecture class does just what Newman said: It keeps students’ minds in energetic and simultaneous action. And it teaches a rare skill in our smartphone-app-addled culture: the art of attention, the crucial first step in the “critical thinking” that educational theorists prize.

A terrific lecture most assuredly can energize a mind (and, in my responses here, I’m assuming the lecture is indeed terrific and not just the recitation of Google-able information). But that’s not what bothers me here. It’s the grumpy-toned accusation that follows — that somehow all students are being damaged by a “smartphone-app-addled culture.” First of all, she does not know if any social media actually “addles” anyone. It might. But it might not. But this sentence assumes that all of her students are somehow doomed by their choices — unless, of course, she can save them from themselves and from this monster called culture. Somewhere, Allan Bloom is nodding in agreement with Worthen. But I digress.

In what follows, I, believe it or not, find myself in agreement with Worthen (until she goes and assumes the worst of her students, which, as a teacher, I abhor in her article):

In the humanities, a lecture “places a premium on the connections between individual facts,” Monessa Cummins, the chairwoman of the classics department and a popular lecturer at Grinnell College, told me. “It is not a recitation of facts, but the building of an argument.”

Yes. A polemic. The telling of a story. Yes. But wait — she’s going to sell her students short again (geez, just when I was starting to feel fuzzy):

In our time, when any reading assignment longer than a Facebook post seems ponderous, students have little experience doing this [i.e., absorbing a long, complex argument].

So, are we to assume that before social media and the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, every student found lectures on Hegel scintillatingly clear? She should maybe go to a lecture on pre-social media lectures to check her reasoning. But I digress.

Here’s another baffling section:

Holding their attention is not easy. I lecture from detailed notes, which I rehearse before each class until I know the script well enough to riff when inspiration strikes. I pace around, wave my arms, and call out questions to which I expect an answer. When the hour is done, I’m hot and sweaty.

Again, I don’t deny the effect of a well-delivered, well-planned lecture. But can Worthen see that the workout she enjoys — and that allows her to be inspired and to riff — might, in the hands of her students if she gave them a similar opportunity, give them a first-person experience that would make them so much more than spectators? I’ve seen hot and sweaty people at the gym, but if I’m not on the treadmill myself getting hot and sweaty, I’m not losing an ounce (and I would know!).

The last thing I’ll look at here is this:

“Note-taking should be just as eloquent as speaking,” said Medora Ahern, a recent graduate of New Saint Andrews College in Idaho. I tracked her down after a visit there persuaded me that this tiny Christian college has preserved some of the best features of a traditional liberal arts education. She told me how learning to take attentive, analytical notes helped her succeed in debates with her classmates. “Debate is really all about note-taking, dissecting your opponent’s idea, reducing it into a single sentence. There’s something about the brevity of notes, putting an idea into a smaller space, that allows you psychologically to overcome that idea.”

First of all, note-taking isn’t specific to the lecture hall; anyone can take notes at any time — say, when students are working in a group. Doing research. For, say, oh, I don’t know . . . a debate. And wait! Does the professor perform the debate from the lectern? No? You mean the students actually have to do this work themselves?

What is this social-media-addled culture coming to?

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